New York, a city of Islands and rivers, has almost no accessible waterfront. Highways line Manhattan's riverbanks. Frontage real estate in Brooklyn and Queens which comprise the bulbous western end of Long Island is largely postindustrial wasteland. Most New Yorkers rarely venture to Staten Island, and much of the daily commuter traffic across the Hudson and East rivers occurs underground in subways and tunnels.
Perhaps this is why the possibility of a new, Venice-like waterway in the heart of Brooklyn held such appeal. Against all odds, for the past several years Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has lobbied to turn the borough's Gowanus Canal a foul, PCB-laden channel that winds for nearly two miles (about 3 km) into a destination spot for condo dwellers and upscale retail developers. On March 2, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered the city a reality check when it designated the Gowanus a Superfund site. The distinction is reserved for the country's most hazardous waste sites and allows the federal government to direct cleanup and charge polluters for their share of the burden.
The EPA's decision and the stigma that comes with it have deferred dreams of a Gowanus renaissance, if not quashed them altogether. During the past decade, as the real estate boom drove New York housing prices higher and higher, there seemed to be no land in the city that couldn't somehow be salvaged. The city joined local activists to zero in on the Gowanus Canal, hoping it could become the anchor for a neighborhood renewal. Several developers announced plans to construct new apartments; Whole Foods, a harbinger of upward mobility, purchased a nearby parcel. In recent years, sightings of jellyfish, cormorants, bass and even a harp seal were celebrated as signs that the canal had a bright future. Some adventurous souls, seeking to highlight the canal's potential, even started a canoeing club.
But pleasure boaters were warned not to touch the water and for good reason. Recent testing revealed the presence of heavy metals and pesticides, along with cancer-causing PCBs, concentrated in sediment at the bottom of the canal. The magnitude of the cleanup task seemed to call out for federal intervention. The EPA says its plan will take up to 12 years; the city's more modest plan was judged inadequate by federal officials.
After the waterway was carved out of wetlands in the 1860s, oil refineries, tanneries and chemical plants moved in and spewed noxious waste into the canal, where it mixed with raw sewage. Before long, Gowanus was a cesspool. Today the surface can appear brown, green, black and sometimes purple, earning the canal the moniker Lavender Lake. Neighborhood residents whisper that the bottom is littered with bodies dumped there by the Mafia.
Cheap and crumbling spaces, however, often attract a city's most creative people. A vibrant artist community has settled into the decrepit industrial landscape around the canal, and some of its members are breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of the EPA decision. High-end-condo development "presents a danger of a different sort," says Tamara Pittman, who works at the Proteus Gowanus art gallery. Pittman says she knows the canal needs to be cleaned up but still can't help admiring its "beautiful neglect." The artists who have been attracted to the area's preserved detritus (and low rents) hope the EPA's ruling means they have at least a decade more to peacefully exist without fearing encroachment from condo towers. (One developer has already scrapped plans to construct a 460-unit complex.)
Peter Reich, an artist and father of three, has lived and worked right next to the Gowanus since 1983. Charged with maintaining his apartment building's basement boiler, he sometimes wades through the water that rushes in during rainstorms. "It's nice to have an enclave to hang out in that no one wants to develop," says Reich. "We're still pioneers."